McClure: Labels can be helpful – or m⁠i⁠slead⁠i⁠ng

By: Dr. J. Robert McClure / 2017



Like many people, I have mixed feelings about labels. On the one hand, I often find it helpful to have brand names guide my decisions in the marketplace. Labels help me quickly rule out certain options – and strongly consider other possibilities – that save me time and trouble.

So generally I’m a “trust the label” rather than “read the fine print” guy. However, I’ve also learned the label commonly associated with a certain product – or a certain idea – doesn’t always fit well. Sometimes labels can mislead or get in the way. When this happens in the realm of public policy, the result may be needless controversy and political division.

Let me give you a couple of examples from my work as head of The James Madison Institute. Several years ago, JMI was honored by the Tallahassee Society for Historic Preservation for our work restoring the building that now serves as our headquarters. No one should be surprised that an organization named for James Madison would want to restore a building constructed back in the 1830s, when Madison was still alive.

Yet in many places around the country, the folks in the vanguard of historic preservation often self-identify as progressives. And these progressives sometimes find themselves at odds with conservative leaders who, in the name of progress, want to raze old dilapidated buildings to make room for new economic development.

So should we consider historic preservationists “conservative” and economic development advocates “progressive”? Perhaps. Or maybe we should just be careful not to let such labels get in the way when we go to make good public policy. Surely all of us can agree there are times when buildings ought to be razed and times when they ought to be preserved – and times when new development ought to go forward and times when it ought to be redirected.

Education reform is another area the common political labels don’t seem to fit. Historically the forces in favor of preserving the status quo have been considered conservative while the forces favoring disruptive innovation would be considered progressive.

Yet when it comes to school choice, many of the self-described progressives wax nostalgic about the good ol’ days of the Common School, while forward-thinking conservatives – who are too often unfairly characterized as uncaring about the poor – are busy working to bring wider options to disadvantaged students.

None of this means labels have no use, but these examples should serve as reminders that labels don’t always fit perfectly. All of us ought to keep an open mind so we can have civil conversations that allow us to go beyond the labels and get public policy right.

I am grateful the Tallahassee Democrat has asked me to begin writing a regular column. It’s a unique opportunity to engage, challenge and even surprise. Whether you label yourself a progressive, a conservative, a moderate or none of the above, I look forward to the conversation.

J. Robert McClure is president and CEO of The James Madison Institute, a statewide think tank based in Tallahassee devoted to research and education on public policy issues.